On a visit to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme that the UK government’s treatment of asylum seekers was “a shame on our country”.
After spending time listening to the stories of those accompanied by the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, the Cardinal, who was visibly moved by what he heard, said:
“If you’ve been here for 10 years and you can’t have a residence, you can’t study, you can’t work, you have no income, it’s as if you are being told you are a ‘non-person’, and it’s that darkness that we have listened to this afternoon. I can think of no other words than to say it is a shame on our country.
“Being in this [Jesuit Refugee Service] centre, it’s like having a tiny light that allows you to see into the deep darkness of people’s lives. They are here in this kind of ‘twilight world’, and what we’ve heard this afternoon is how deep that darkness is, and, in a way, how deliberately that darkness is created.
“It seems that there is a deeply mistaken sense that treating people this badly will prevent others seeking sanctuary in this country.”
Speaking afterwards about his visit, in his own podcast reflection he added, “I heard heart-rending, terrible stories of the way some people have been treated … we seem to have a system in place that obviously has to deal with some very difficult cases, some hard cases, but it seems to deal with all cases in a very hard manner. And it can’t be right, it cannot be right, that a person is left in this limbo, this no-man’s land, for 10 or more years in a country as sophisticated and as affluent as ours.”
Struck by the stories he heard, His Eminence was touched by the words of one woman in particular: “Perhaps the most moving thing for me was to hear a very elderly, French-speaking women, who has been in this no-man’s land for over 10 years, when I thanked her for telling me her story she simply said: ‘But you are my father’.”
JRS UK has long been drawing attention to the damaging effects that the ‘hostile environment’ agenda has on those seeking sanctuary. Many asylum seekers served by JRS UK are forced into a prolonged limbo of destitution by the Home Office as they struggle to gain recognition of their status as a refugee.
During his visit to the JRS Day Centre, Cardinal Nichols met with people currently trying to navigate the complexities of the asylum process, hearing directly from three women who shared the difficulty of their lives. One spoke of her experience of being detained and other two spoke of the on-going pain of destitution and rejection at the hands of the asylum system.
Following the many allegations of mistreatment by the Home Office uncovered during the so-called Windrush scandal, there have been many calls for the asylum system in the UK to be reformed. The new Home Secretary said that he planned for a “fairer, more compassionate” system after acknowledging that the treatment meted out under the hostile environment policies during the so-called Windrush scandal had not been “personal enough and not sympathetic enough”. However minimal change has been seen.
Director of JRS UK, Sarah Teather said: “The recent temporary pauses on some aspects of data sharing announced by the Home Secretary does not come close to the root and branch reform needed in the immigration system.
“The suffering caused by the hostile environment is deliberate and purposeful; these policies are directed to make the lives of those struggling to gain recognition of their refugee status as crushingly difficult as possible. This deliberate and cruel imposition of hardship is not an acceptable way to treat any human being, let alone those seeking sanctuary.
“The asylum seekers we support through our Day Centre have often struggled with destitution and homelessness for many years. Resilient people are made vulnerable by the system itself.
“The government needs to stick to its word and provide the substantive change in culture needed within our immigration system. It is time to end the hostile environment agenda altogether.”
We spoke to Cardinal Vincent Nichols just after he returned from visiting the Jesuit Refugee Centre UK on Thursday, 12 July 2018.
The BBC report can be heard in full on iPlayer: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b9v6cw
Read more about the Jesuit Refugee Services here: www.jrsuk.net